Aminah Ricks is the Founder and Director of Future Planners, a New York-based organisation working to ignite a passion in children to reimagine their cities. An architect and urban planner, Aminah works directly with children and consults with public institutions, governments and NGOs to bring the unique perspectives and experiences of children into the design of cities around the world.

 We interviewed Aminah at her current base in Umbria, Italy to understand more about the importance and benefits of engaging children and young people in the design and planning of our cities.

Leanne: Leading an agency that focuses on bringing children into city planning in New York seems a long way from the start of your career working as an architect on 18th century Italian buildings. Could you start by sharing a bit of your story?

Aminah: I was born and raised in Chicago in an area called Hyde Park, which people now know because that's where the Obamas lived. But even before they lived there, I thought it was a special place!  It’s a very walkable and culturally diverse neighborhood.

I got a degree in English literature and went on to work in marketing for a little bit. But I always loved architecture. I would often go to architectural school talks. But it wasn't until I left the country and travelled around the world and wound up in Italy that I gave myself permission to try to become an architect, in a country where at first when I arrived I didn't have the language.

I've always loved cities. I lived in places like London and San Francisco, I’ve travelled to one hundred cities and I hope to travel to several hundred more. I just feel like the city is this living organism that we can study and think about and talk about ad nauseum.

I did start in the classical architectural path and worked here restoring towers and buildings and villages from the 1700s, 1800s.  After my daughter was born, we moved to Brooklyn. She was 18 months old and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in New York.

I walked around with her, carried her, and we spent a lot of time together and I would always talk to her and ask ‘what do you think about this building?’ or ‘how do you feel about the passing traffic?’. I would get down to her height of the stroller and see what the city felt like say at the corner crosswalk, to the point where I told my husband, ‘don't ever put her close to the curb’. Because for our height, traffic moving at a certain miles per hour feels one way, but for her, it's much stronger. From questioning our surroundings, we moved onto creating projects together, even before she was really that dexterous. We would just start building models and knocking things down and friends would come over and see this and say ‘this is great, how you're talking to her and how you're thinking about things together, I would like my child to participate in something like this’.

I heard this for quite some time, and I heard it, and didn't hear it, you know? And then there was an opportunity to do an amazing program through the Small Business Administration of New York CIty, where you learn about how to start a business. I was very fortunate that the first place I went to, to present my final presentation of Future Planners, was the Brooklyn Children's Museum. They had a new director from France who also had experience at the Smithsonian. So he was new and looking for new things. What I found a lot of times in this work was that first, you have to explain why it would be important to create a curriculum directed to children, for children, about cities. There can be a disconnect as people think that the kids are too young. High school is OK, college is OK, but what are kids going to do talking about urban planning? So I had to explain that urban planning is actually lots of things. It's not just putting designs on paper about how to lay out streets. It has to do with sustainability and community gardens and participatory budgeting and all these things that kids have brilliant ideas about. The director was keen and I began running a small class there which was a really good launch because it's well known and respected for supporting a child’s development and in educating children in a way that comes from the child’s point of view.

There can be a tendency by some for children to be seen as someone that you plan for, but who are not to be engaged in the planning. It's a top down thing.

So I started thinking, ‘what can I do to change this?’. I started reaching out to local council members without any luck. I would try to reach them on Instagram or Twitter to say ‘this is what kids are interested in. This is the future constituency that you have. Why do you allow city participatory budgeting from 16? Why not make it available to eight- or six-year olds? Because kids have ideas about how money should be spent in their neighbourhood and their voices should count.’

So for those areas where they weren't allowed to participate in real life, I would do mock things in class. We'd go out and do a survey, and I would teach the kids how to read the city. I’d ask ‘What does the city look like at 9 o'clock versus 12? Why is that different? What do you think about that? What is rush hour? Why do you see more strollers at a certain time than not? Those cracks in the sidewalk, if someone is disabled, how are they going to get through the street?’. Just creating an opening of, not really empathy, because kids are already pretty empathetic, but just having them see that the world is theirs and that their voices matter. They have all these questions. There may not be a way to address all the answers, but if you don't even think to ask, then how are you going to become an active, engaged citizen?

The idea is not for them to become urban planners – if they do, I’d love it, obviously! - but more to be an active urban person, going through life understanding that the minute you walk out of your door into that shared space, what affects you has something to do with urban planning. That they should have a voice and have a say in it.

Why do you think that we underestimate children so much? Why are we stuck in this mindset of top-down planning for children instead of asking them what they need and want?

No one has ever asked me that before. Two answers - I think part of it is just in general, city planners don't always have the chance to ask the people who they are planning for questions, children or anyone. I think there's in general this big disconnect from who you're serving and engaging with those people in a direct and equitable way. That's the first thing. I think the second thing is that maybe people have forgotten what it's like to be a kid. I think, because this was born out of this very close interaction with my daughter and always asking her opinion and not speaking over her, she would say, ’Mommy, I think this’, and she started having her own voice. And once I saw that self actualization occur  - and still to this day, you know, I can't get her to stop sharing what she thinks about things - I think once you see that capacity from them, you can't forget it.

Children are just in a little body, but they have the same big feelings as adults. When they’re sad, their sadness is just as deep, they just happen to experience it in a smaller body. In Brooklyn, my husband would sometimes do the dishes after dinner and my daughter and I would do this night walk. We got to a certain point on the street that is really dark, and it scared her. That fear is real. Why is the department who's planning the budgeting for electricity and lighting placement not thinking about, not just my daughter, but other young kids? I think that that needs to happen more, perhaps actually happen at all.

What do you think our cities should provide for children? Is it about thinking about their independence, or experimentation, or play, or how they make friends? What does the city need to offer kids?

Do you know Tim Gill? He gave a keynote speech at A Child in the City conference that I was at a couple of years ago. He did this really cool thing where he told everybody to stand up and then to sit down only if you answered no to certain questions. He asked a series of questions about growing up. And by the end, we realized that almost all of us, compared to children now, what we liked most about being a child was being outdoors and being free. Kids don't have that now. Society changes, nothing is permanent. But it would be nice, I think, if kids could regain some of those freedoms that we remember having. I think a lot of it has to do with the geometry of the streets. Planners tend to follow codes to think about traffic going as fast as possible and moving quickly and covering as much ground as possible. But if there could be a paradigm shift, about traveling safely, then a mother might say to her 10 year old, ‘yes, you can go to the playground by yourself because I know that there is a signal priority for pedestrians first. I know that there's going to be bollards out to stop cars who have to turn across the intersection from cutting through and having a blind spot’. I mean, there are things that can be done from the design point of view to make it just safer for kids to be independent.

But I think the idea of play also is really important. I'm right now working on a children's book. We'll see if it ever happens! My daughter and I are working on it and it's about a long walk home. It's basically about all the ways she interacts with the city, with Brooklyn. And it could be anything from turning a ledge into a gymnastic beam that she wants to walk along. I think that there are opportunities for that in design. I've seen some really cool things in, I want to say Singapore, where they're taking bus shelters and making them more interactive with a little reading library in it, and a swing. These are things that aren’t high cost, but they take a higher level of thinking.  We have to think about people from 8 to 80 - who are we serving and for what purpose? I think planners need to be going out more in the city and observing children.

The idea is not that I think the city should be exclusively for children - that's not the point. My philosophy is that they're the best barometer for how the city works. So if it works for a child, then it's going to work for someone who's elderly or someone who maybe has crutches temporarily or even a young couple in their twenties or someone in a wheelchair. All those things I talked about - lighting and paving and greenery - that works for everybody. Just start thinking from a kid’s perspective and you have this umbrella coverage for the vast majority of residents. There’s a great study out by Arup called Cities Alive - they say by 2030 over 50 percent of the world's urban population will be children. It's almost too late, so really the time is right now to be thinking in this way and applying these concepts.

The idea is not that I think the city should be exclusively for children - that's not the point. My philosophy is that they're the best barometer for how the city works. 
The idea is not that I think the city should be exclusively for children - that's not the point. My philosophy is that they're the best barometer for how the city works. 

When you think about how to engage with children, what's different in terms of how you approach it from engaging with adults? And then how do connect that engagement to what can sometimes be a very tedious and structured process of getting a policy changed in urban planning?

I would say the main difference is that when working with kids, there's always this idea of play or story to start it out. I did an event here in Italy in a town called Spoleto, and I got permission to take over a piazza. I told the kids that this was their outdoor living room, their outdoor studio for the day, and it was all about just giving them space and tools to play and build their ideal playground. After it was over and I would run into some of the participants they remarked how they saw that piazza in a new light. Another benefit is that it provided tangible evidence that the local children were not being served well enough with the number and type of playgrounds that they had. To get the children to realize the value of their ideas, to go from point zero to point ten there’s a bit of strategy. First, I read a story to them - this great story I found by this group called Kaboom. They go out into communities and they build playgrounds. They wrote this brilliant story about a little girl who was sitting on her stoop, watching an empty lot and somebody comes to build a playground. The story ends with her asking about it and they give her a hard hat and she gets to be a part of the process.

So that's how I set up the day event. I said to the children if you were able to do that here in your town, what would you want to see happen? So depending on the age of the child, maybe it's just a drawing, if they're older, that could be building a 3D model. And then I just go around and talk to them and we'll stand there with their parents and observe.  Helping but not influencing. And I take mental and then written notes of what they're saying they want because that also says what they don't have. You've got to ask an open-ended question that gives you enough information to see what they're hoping for and what they don't want to see any longer.

The main thing with kids is to talk to them as if they are super smart, because they are.  And to reinforce that I'm just here to listen and that there aren’t, I know it's a cliche, but there aren't bad ideas. I think it's important to really fertilize these ideas and then give them to the powers that be to be taken seriously, and implement them into their thinking, because then the seed of that idea eventually comes out into the design or redesign.

What are the sort of barriers you face when you're trying to convince people to take kids seriously, whether it's a mindset barrier or practical measures?

Well, it's interesting. That event that I talked about in the piazza, up until the day it happened, we were getting warnings from the police department that they might call it a traffic safety issue because we were going to have kids in a place where cars could potentially go. And this was in a piazza along a car-free street. Literally, cars could only go by if they were the police, and rarely delivery vans. So we didn't understand. And that only worked out ok through the help of a person at one of the urban planning firms that sponsored the event. We put huge flower planters around, we laid out artificial grass - we did everything to keep them clearly separate. But there's just this mindset that we have to protect the children to the point of not letting them breathe, not letting them experience the city. On the other hand, pushing into the schools was always easier when the director or the principal of the school is open to the idea. If people are game, then they’re game for the whole thing. And if they're not, it's really, really hard. Something small though is better than nothing.

So you don't give up. In the places where it's worked, that then becomes our case studies to show the success to others. I think the idea, too, is just to not give up because you don't want to give up on the kids. And so maybe that year and in that particular place, something didn't happen. But eventually I'm very hopeful, I try to be a glass half full person.

How do you change people's mindset about the importance of engaging with children? What are the persuasive arguments you've given them? Or is it best to show them, look it does work and here’s a case study?. How do you convince them that children deserve a voice?

I do a series of things. For example, I have worked with an urban planning institute - the Van Alen Institute well known in the United States. And it was the first time they were considering doing a children’s urban planning event, which I am very grateful they agreed to do.  They were concerned that there might not be enough parents or adults to support it. Right. And so I said 'well, that's OK, because I have volunteers who can come, and even by myself I can handle say 20 kids. Really, it's going to be OK'. And so it's kind of like going through one by one all the things that they're validly concerned about. Fortunately, they provided volunteers from their staff and even the building and drawing supplies the kids would need. So it was a true partnership in that they were open to something new and helped lay the groundwork for more events of this type that they can now conduct in the future.

The key to building these types of partnerships is thinking about it in an empathetic way, from the organization or agency or NGO’s point of view, like what are they really concerned about in working with children? And then sort of problem solve and then also share the benefits, because sometimes just the benefits are not enough. Sometimes people just aren't going to be moved by the fact that, well, this is really good because for the future we have to build for kids, that if we think about them, we think about everybody. That just doesn't convince some people. But if you put it in terms like ‘this is going to help your association be seen in this new light, you can go after new funding now’ - those are the things that sometimes get you another step closer.  There is a practicality that is important to understand, relate to, address and resolve.

There's just not the idea of teaching and engaging with young children in the urban planning space out there in the mainstream. So it's been difficult at times because you have to first build a path, make people see it's important, and then convince them that it's worth taking that path, for something that they did not previously consider, children plus urban planning, or that they weren't even aware that they could or should offer. That's why I think the children’s book would be good, because I think maybe it could be like a story which outlines, in an organic way, many of the things that I'm trying to say. And you could get it into families’ homes, the homes of planners, the homes of city mayors. It would be lovely if parents are saying, ‘I want this in my kid's curriculum, I actually want this to be a part of what my child is learning in everyday school, or at their local library or community center’. That's the dream. That there's just like a wave of people saying, ‘I think that this is important and this needs to happen’.

Often when I've been on projects where people are proposing to engage with kids, I have a strong sense of it feeling like we’re not really engaging but simply taking something from them - their ideas, or that we simply want to be able to say that we talked with children, but don’t actually listen to them, which doesn’t feel right. By contrast, I really love how you talk about the fact that the children are learning to become citizens through engaging in a planning process.

Because they are! They already are city-zens!

After reading some of the material on your website about the power of children's imagination, I was thinking about the significant issues we're facing like climate change, the pandemic or social inequity, all these massive changes. I wondered if you think that children actually have better ideas than adults have for our city's future and maybe we should just step away, that we’ve just stuffed it all up?

I absolutely agree with you. New York has been a wonderful place to work because it’s a city that has everything from the best to the worst. You've got very wealthy people and we also have picnics next to homeless people. So there are all these opportunities for kids to see this microcosm of the world, all the different languages, all the different ways of being. I've had classes where kids have said,  ‘how come when I go to the coffee shop with my mom, people have to buy something to sit there?’ This is an excellent question. I did not have an answer, but I thought that was a brilliant question because the basic idea that children have is that everyone has a right and access to everything. Adults don’t have that. We have something in New York called privately owned public spaces, they’re called POPs. Depending on who's running it, there are places where I have not felt welcome to go in. Even though they are supposed to be a public place, there is a guard there. And, you know, it's just pristine. They don't make you feel like you're supposed to be in that space. But it's technically a public space. And so I think why we really should listen to kids is because they have the right idea, that the city really is for everyone. Kids, especially younger ones, they don't even have prejudice, they do not prejudge.  They don't even understand what that is. They don't think that they are better or worse than anyone in terms of class, in terms of culture, in terms of income, things like that. We need to let down, sort of all of those guards that we inherently have – and there's not an adult that doesn't have inherent bias - we all do. We have to be mindful of them, so that we face them and go through them, but as adults we don't always do that. Kids don't have to because they don't have them in the first place.

I was teaching this youth group over the summer, and I was saying, you know, you guys are old enough, you should be going to local community meetings and they said, ‘no, those are for adults’. And I said, ‘well, one, if you're 18, technically you are an adult. You can go to war. You can go to community meetings, yes?’ And ‘two, they need to be listening to you’. So, I was encouraging them all to find out who their local council member was, start to follow them on social media, make comments, if they have an idea, to write their council members about it. These are youth from 18 to 24 and even at that age, they don't feel that they have a right to have a voice.

That was so interesting for me because here I am working with young kids, trying to get them to have that feeling, and I would have thought that at 18 it would be present, but I'm realizing it isn't. I guess it's never too late to try to catch and get somebody engaged and passionate and at least knowledgeable about who's affecting their space, who's affecting their cityscape, because someone is and if they don't at least know who the person is, how can they then start thinking about ways of altering or changing or improving it? I stopped the class and said, ‘OK, so let's look up who's your council person. Let's look it up - it's not magic, it's not a superpower’. This is something that anyone can do but they have to first think to do it. That's what gets me excited.

...I was saying, you know, you guys are old enough, you should be going to local community meetings and they said, ‘no, those are for adults’. And I said, ‘... you're 18, technically you are an adult. You can go to war. You can go to community meetings, yes?’ 
...I was saying, you know, you guys are old enough, you should be going to local community meetings and they said, ‘no, those are for adults’. And I said, ‘... you're 18, technically you are an adult. You can go to war. You can go to community meetings, yes?’ 

It's really interesting, isn't it, when you think of the different subjects that kids are taught in school, they're not taught about concepts such as cities, rather knowledge is often compartmentalised.

And it's so important, especially because it's not even abstract. It's not like the history that we're learning about wars that have happened - I'm not saying that's not important - but what's going to affect their everyday life as an adult is something that is very important and it doesn't have to even take a lot of time. This could be done even over a series of a few lessons or integrated into existing curriculum. These ideas are also hyper local. So, wherever you are, you can take these general ideas and then cookie cutter them to what your local needs are. And now what I've learned over the summer teaching these young adults - it was a wake up call that even young adults need to know these issues. Oh, and I made a strong plea that they had to go register to vote!

That’s brilliant. Is there an age that you think we need to start engaging with children about cities?

Oh, from when they're a baby. I mean, you can sing songs to a child about a city and you can even make up the song. You know my daughter is just this wonderful little case study. When she was three months old, we took her to Berlin. So she's had stamps on her passport and been exposed to various types of cities from a really young age. I’m always asking ‘What do you think about this? What do you think about the sidewalk? What do you think about how much space we have to walk on the sidewalk? What do you think about the length of the sidewalk?’. I mean, sidewalks alone can take up weeks of conversation! I did a class with kids aged five, six and seven, called ‘the eyes of the sidewalk’ and we got clipboards and I had them walk up and down the sidewalk and they had to give a rating to what they thought of each storefront and tell me if it worked, if it didn't and why, and what they would change.

And what did they think was a good storefront?

The ice cream shop, of course! It was the one shop that had glass front almost from the ground up. It was open and transparent. And so you saw what was there and they had bright colours and they had a big ice cream scoop made in wood. It was all painted on the outside. They had a bench outside. They had a little water dish for dogs. And they did everything they could to make it welcoming. And the one they liked the least was the corner 24 hour shop, because it was full of just ads and from their height you could see nothing inside. That was the one that got the lowest score.

Where do you seek your inspiration? What inspires you to keep focusing on this important issue of bringing children into city planning?

Well, my daughter for sure. I mean, this whole idea came about because of her. So she definitely inspires me, her, I would say, and the young kids that I see her playing with. I spent a bit of time in Japan this past summer and I gave a lecture at the Japan Women's University in Tokyo. I got to go around the city with the professor, and she helped me see in so many ways that children’s experiences in cities is a cultural thing, but also, it’s about how they've designed the city. Children are very independent in Japan. You see them on the subway alone from I would say from 10 years old. There are so many street signs about giving way to children, like children specifically.

I do feel like this next generation of kids is much more vocal. They're not shy to share their ideas so the children themselves, my students inspire me. And then there are certain places where I've seen changes that are positive and adaptable to many other places. If you looked at Copenhagen 18 years ago when they published their first cycling strategy, you wouldn't recognize it today. They were able to change it to make it bike friendly, which by virtue of having more bikes out and about, makes it more kid friendly. So there are places that have turned from one way to being another way. That possibility, I think, keeps me going.

I have students that I don't even work with anymore, their parents send me videos of them out in the world, what they see and what they want to share with me. It's all very inspiring because it makes it seem like this seemingly crazy idea in my mind actually has turned into something which benefits children in a long term lasting way. I think that's probably the most inspiring of all. I’ll do this as long as I can.

Interview by Leanne Hodyl